DANVILLE, Ill. -- John Wood Community College men's basketball coach Brad Hoyt knows Eric Easter's presence is invaluable.
The rebounds, defensive pressure and ability to play above the rim help, too.
"He's a huge part of our personality," Hoyt said of the sophomore forward from Indianapolis who missed the Region 24 championship game with a knee injury. "He's a huge part of our trust. He's a huge part of who we are. That doesn't take away from anybody else, but he, Cory (Miller) and Gentry (Whiteman) respond to each other in a big moment kind of way.
"He makes us better just being out there."
In Wednesday's opening round of the NJCAA Division II national tournament at the Mary Miller Complex, Easter played as big as the moment required.
With the Trail Blazers trailing St. Clair County (Mich.) 33-27 with four minutes remaining in the first half -- it was JWCC's largest deficit of the game -- Easter scored five consecutive points, highlighted by a dunk in transition. It changed the entire momentum as the 11th-seeded Trail Blazers advanced to the quarterfinals with a 71-65 victory.
"You rely on each other to make plays, whoever it is," Easter said. "Those were circumstances where I was the right person in the right spot to make a play. You trust you'll come through for your team in those circumstances."
The Trail Blazers have complete trust in Easter.
"He does all the dirty work. He's our junkyard dog," Whiteman said. "Not only is doing all the dirty work -- boxing out, grabbing rebounds, getting defensive stops -- but he's also scoring on the other end of it. That's so big. He's such a valuable part of what we do."
That's what made his absence so significant.
"It's never easy sitting out in general," Easter said. "But at the time of the year we're in and with how much each game means, you don't want to miss anything. It was a big focus of mine the last week and a half to make sure I get healthy and be close to 100 percent, if not 100 percent."
So how close is he?
"I believe I'm around 90 percent," Easter said.
His effort was full tilt. Easter scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had two assists in 21 minutes and was a crucial part of the defensive effort that held the Skippers 19 points below their season scoring average.
"As the week has gone on, he's gotten better and better," Hoyt said. "I knew he'd be fine."